Our chosen place for escaping the winter climate of eastern N America has been the SW FL coast around Englewood for more than 26 years. Not only is it warmer here than up north but you can continue to enjoy observing nature which is for the most part frozen in time at higher latitudes. So instead of shoveling snow in central PA which we did for 34 years, we now spend our winter days working in the garden and watching for interesting natural events. These photos illustrate observations from mid-December to mid- January in Charlotte County, FL.
Flowers are greatly reduced in numbers even in winter-time FL, but this native swamp lily or Crinum was blooming on Dec. 12. The color and shape of flowers can be used to deduce the likely pollinators to be attracted. So this lily is white, implicating a nocturnal pollinator, and the corolla tube is quite long demonstrating that the pollinator searching for nectar must have a tongue at least three inches long ! Thus the most likely pollinator is some type of sphinx or hummingbird moth such as this streaked sphinx whose caterpillars feed on plants of the poison ivy family family including Brazilian pepper.
Another group of fascinating insects that remain active in winter-time FL are the dragonflies. Learning to distinguish the many species can be challenging, but these two are quite distinctive. The male roseate skimmer is brilliant pink and advertises its virility by such bright colors; the female is brownish and picks which male she prefers to mate with. In contrast the pin-tailed pond hawk has a bizarrely narrow abdomen and this male is less distinct from the female in coloration.
Some butterflies remain active all winter when the temperature is high enough. The long tailed skipper is well named with a bluish body. The great southern white butterfly has distinctive light blue tips on its antennae. This monarch male is basking on a cool sunny day and resumes visiting flowers and fighting with other males when it is warm enough. Our monarchs do not migrate to Mexico and are a population related to Caribbean monarchs. They depend heavily on exotic milkweeds planted by homeowners.
Among the numerous mainly paper and mud dauber wasps, I noticed this pretty Jamaican digger wasp, Sphex jamaicensis, visiting tropical milkweed flowers in our yard. It is also known to visit mangrove flowers and likely helps to pollinate them. It is interesting that some highly carnivorous wasps that catch prey for their young feed on flowers themselves. This digger wasp stings/paralyzes katydids and buries them in soil burrows after laying an egg on them.
The cool sunny days of winter lead to basking behavior in turtles, birds and butterflies. I found this group of two species of turtles (native peninsula cooters and so-called red ears which are exotic remnants of the past trade in baby turtles as pets). These turtles are primarily herbivorous and need to warm up to digest their food. Birds also bask for very different reasons. This yellow crowned night heron has opened its wings while facing the sun- perhaps simply to warm up. The anhinga on the other hand holds out its wings not only to dry them after foraging underwater, but perhaps also to warm up after a cool swim.
The more common ibis in our area is the white ibis but this less often seen glossy ibis reveals why it is so named. It is very iridescent in the sunshine. Such colors are typically caused by prismatic refraction of light not by pigments in the feathers.
An immature little blue heron is white and this individual was seen in our yard foraging in grass much like white ibis and cattle egrets. I have seen this same terrestrial feeding behavior only once before and it is a very significant expansion of typically aquatic feeding behavior. White ibis and great egrets are commonly seen foraging on land in grass and bushes and this substantially improves their chances of survival and breeding as habitats change so rapidly with human intervention. Such behavioral flexibility is crucial for surviving rapid changes in earth’s climate and habitats.
Finally I enjoy seeing this yellow throated warbler come to one of our water drips almost every day. It clearly likes bathing and this illustrates how provision of water baths can be much more important than feeding birds in this area.
No matter where you are you can enjoy a similar variety of natural experiences if you just go outside and quietly watch for things to happen. You may choose to sit somewhere or slowly walk around and especially check any flowers for insects. Early afternoon on a sunny winter day can be a good time to observe animal activity.